This is a tale of an failed idea. Well, not a big failed idea. A failed name for a good idea, but I’m not talking much about the good idea yet, just the premise, and the name I had for it which isn’t going to work out, and wasn’t all that great to begin with.
My recent essay on The Division concerned the dangerous messaging within the game. Extra Credits has talked at length regarding propaganda games and dangerous messaging, and the ease with which it can come up unintentionally, especially when a game closely reflects the real world yet clings to classical game conventions.
And boy does Division message.
The problem stems from a tried-and-true video game convention, in which, for sake of ease and fun, the inhabitants of a world are delineated cleanly into obvious demographics. Many games do this, breaking everyone up into allied militants, enemy militants, and victims. This sets up a dynamic where the player shoots at enemies, protects victims, and utilizes (directs, maybe) friendly militants as a force multiplier against overwhelming forces.
And this works in most cases, especially when the enemy forces aren’t fellow humans, such as incurable zombies or robots-gone-rogue or even implacable aliens (I’m looking at you, Martians!). It’s an accepted convention in war stories in which soldiers wear distinct uniforms and are mutually there to secure the battlefield from the other side. Most often (it seems) when we have human enemies, they are German Wehrmacht, even dues-paying party-member armband-wearing Nazis.*
But this convention presents a problem, as it does in The Division when the game shifts from a war-fighting context to a peacekeeping one — even in disaster or martial-law circumstances — and all parties, friendlies, enemies and victims, alike, are all citizens of the same state, allegedly as they would be in the United States, with equal rights under law. The Division reflects a worrisome sentiment expressed by Associated Press during the Katrina Disaster in which black survivors were described as looting and similar whites were described as foraging for supplies. Division bad guys are only bad guys because my swanky decoder watch and Division Glass (augmented reality goggles) tell me they are acceptable targets. They are Informed enemies. Designated targets. And when I’m in plague-torn Manhattan looting for supplies or defending stockpiles, I’m only informed that reserves I secure and defend are going to needier, more deserving people than the ones from whom I captured them.
Upon realization I have no more moral high-ground or right to resources than the guys I kill, and my right is only based on my ability to overpower my targets it starts getting creepy. Far Cry 2 lets me do this, but does so without comment, and neither encouragement or discouragement. It’s a slow realization that I am a more terrible bastard, a bleaker monster, than the countless mercenaries and militants I massacre. But the Division narrative continuously reassures me that what I am doing is right, that I needed to kill those guys, and that by killing all these people I’m saving ambiguous dozens (hundreds? thousands?) somewhere else.
But this raises a question regarding games like The Division, or the Tom Clancy game paradigms. Is it possible to make a Borderlands-style shooter-action-RPG hybrid (a shoot-and-loot?) in a serious real-world post-holocaust scenario without sorting the world between good guys and bad guys? (A related question is whether it’s possible to include the Tom Clancy game hallmarks) Moreover, could such a game be fun?
I think not only is it possible to make such a game, but maybe it should be imperative. Games in which shooting the bad buys is the first, best and only option are pandemic, and this would be an alternative, where having a nice gun with nice accessories was important, yet the player would still want to resolve in-game conflicts with as little shooting and loss of life as possible.
Despite the poor choices made in Division’s design, its presence in the dialog helps inform us how we should talk about the real world through video games. The gaming industry more often gives wide berth to portrayals of real situations and real places. But each attempt to look at the real world through games informs future attempts, and as we get better at it and more comfortable with it, games can reach further than their common purposes of escapism and wish fulfillment.
In a near-future essay, I’ll talk about what this might look like.
Zombies, Aliens, Robots
This brings us to TZAR (or Team ZAR) my dubiously-named organization. ZAR stands for Zombies, Aliens, Robots and is a nod to the belief that we cannot anticipate all the crazy ways disaster can manifest, that while preparedness is important, the ability to jury rig solutions is as well.
TZAR is a fictionalization of the real-world organization Zombie Squad. ZS is a real-world voluntary disaster-preparedness group that acknowledges the parallel between preparation for zombie outbreaks, and preparation for more common disaster scenarios (earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods, volcano activity). The ZS volunteers try to encourage people to stock up on food, water, medical supplies and munitions, in case their region wins the next hurricane lottery, and the next Katrina or Sandy makes landfall on their beach.
TZAR is ZS cranked up to eleven.
TZAR encourages a culture of mild paranoia and conspiracy theorism balanced by science and practicality. (Assuming for the moment a Faraday cage around your brain is adequate defense against alien mind control rays, a foil beanie still may not cut it, since it’s rim around the opening could just as likely serve as an antenna for the rays and amplify their effects. It’s better to install a Faraday cage into your shelter. Note that it will also block cell-phone and short-wave radio signals). TZAR aims to be ready for zombie outbreaks, alien invasions and robot uprisings, and during their beer-and-prep parties, contemplation of odd circumstances and how they might be managed is a common topic of inebriated discussion.
Volunteers Taken Seriously
In this version of reality, TZAR has developed enough legitimacy that local chapters often work closely with FEMA. As part of an ongoing disaster response program FEMA keeps track of critical infrastructure points (Yes, they really do this), so that someone can shut off electrical, gas and water mains when authorized utility technicians are triaged. TZAR’s volunteers are issued maps and keys for just this kind of situation. FEMA also stashes away reserves of supplies (food, sheltering, blankets, clothes, medical gear, etc.) for rapid deployment and dissemination to disaster survivors, given hungry survivors are often hostile ones. (FEMA really does this too!) TZAR’s volunteers are in on where these reserves are hidden, and how they are deployed, and the protocols that help get them distributed. Predictably, the TZAR project is one of the smallest expenses on the FEMA budget.
A game about TZAR’s volunteers and a deployment in a disaster (such as in the aftermath of a bioterror outbreak) is a topic for another time.
The problem with calling the group TZAR is it’s not a great name, just an okay name. (RATZ would be awesome, but it doesn’t parse: Robots and Aliens Team, also Zombies?) And calling the game TZAR would imply that at least one of aliens, robots or zombies would be a significant, relevant plot point nearing the finalé.
Someone should totally make this game, and I’ll later wax about what it would look like. But our crack team of disaster preparedness volunteers should probably be called something else.
* After WWII, there are evil Soviets, who are less-satisfying in retrospect than Nazis. After the fall of the USSR, there’s Arab terrorists, which is exactly the sort of racial stereotyping we want to avoid. The substitute since the terrorists has been racially diverse gangs of black-ops-hardened mercenaries and prison-hardened professional criminals. Expect more than your fair share of mobster and action-movie stereotypes. These are a favorite guys-who-must-die group and appear in new games to this day.